Man who hurled racial slurs at black teens pleads not guilty, but doesn’t show for court

The man accused of pulling a gun on black teenage protesters on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, then using racial slurs, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, although he did not appear in a courtroom packed with supporters of the victims.

Neither Mark Bartlett nor his attorneys appeared in court for his arraignment, but Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alberto Milian accepted a written plea of not guilty to felony charges filed under Florida’s hate-crime sentencing “enhancement” law.

Milian, however, ordered Bartlett and his lawyers to appear in court next Tuesday as prosecutors seek to increase the amount of bond he must post to remain free from jail while awaiting trial.

Wednesday’s court hearing was filled with supporters of the teenagers, including over a dozen older women who belong to the Unrepresented People’s Positive Action Council, a group that advocates for minority communities. “We want the young people to know we’re here to support them,” said the organization’s head, Betty Ferguson, a former Miami-Dade county commissioner who like other members wore orange T-shirts with the group’s logo.

Outside, a truck with Bartlett’s jail mugshot blown up on the side of a billboard-like cab circled the Miami-Dade criminal courthouse. “Mark Bartlett points guns at kids calls them n---ers convict this criminal,” it read.

The confrontation between Bartlett and the teens was captured on a bystander video that went viral.

The episode unfolded on Jan. 21, when a group of teens were protesting a lack of affordable housing in Liberty City by blocking the roadway in downtown Miami near the Brickell Bridge. The teens were on bicycles.

An argument erupted between one of the teens and Bartlett’s girlfriend, who claimed the protester ran over her foot. Bartlett ran over from his car, gun in hand, yelling, “Get out of here, you piece of s---” before hurling the racial slurs at them.

A bystander called police officers, who caught up with Bartlett and arrested him, charging him with carrying a concealed weapon. As the teens filed a civil lawsuit, prosecutors spent the next several weeks interviewing witnesses and reviewing video footage of the incident.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced Bartlett would be charged with three counts of aggravated assault, enhanced under Florida’s hate-crime law. The law stiffens the penalty for crimes committed “with prejudice.”

His defense lawyer, Jayne Weintraub, said prosecutors bowed to “political pressure” and that Bartlett was rushing to defend his girlfriend, Dana Scalione.

“Mark went to protect Dana and extract her from the mob surrounding and taunting her,” Weintraub said. “It would not have mattered if these people were red, white or blue. This was not a hate crime.”

The teens have since sued Bartlett.

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.